Toshiba fuels disc discord

HD DVD starts format war

As the next generation of DVD technology inches closer, it seems the players are moving farther apart.

Toshiba announced Tuesday that its HD DVD format has erased the primary advantage of rival Sony’s Blu-ray, the other potential format for the next generation of high-def DVDs.

The “tweak”: Toshiba has devised a way to add 50% more storage capacity to its proposed format.

It also has developed an option to glue a standard DVD movie disc on the back of every HD DVD movie disc to overcome consumers’ concerns about buying a movie that won’t play on all the non-HD machines they own.

Announcement, which significantly advances the cause of the HD DVD camp in its war with the Blu-ray group, came just hours after reports from Japan early Tuesday indicated a unified format agreement was imminent between the two sides. A unified format agreement anytime soon now seems much less likely.

Toshiba, supported by Warner, Universal, Paramount and others, leads a camp that has developed HD DVD, which had offered 30 gigabytes of storage capacity (six to eight hours of high-def video) on a disc that’s a variation on existing DVD technology.

First machines and movies have been announced for release in time for the holidays this year, though many are skeptical that timeline can be met. With the announcement Tuesday, Toshiba says a triple-layer HD DVD disc will increase capacity to 45 GB on a single-sided disc, or as much as 12 hours of high-def content. The double-disc hybrid option would offer a dual-layer 30 GB high-def disc on one side and a standard-definition 8.5 GB disc on the other.

Sony and Matsushita, supported by Disney and others, have created Blu-ray, a similar-looking digital disc using a proprietary technology that offers 50 GB of capacity. Launch is expected in early 2006.

The two formats are incompatible.

Fox and DreamWorks have yet to weigh in with their respective preferences and are not likely to do so anytime soon since a commitment at this stage would give none of the parties much of a strategic advantage. Fox is believed to be concerned about copy protection issues.

Both sides acknowledge that introducing two incompatible formats could be disastrous, causing consumer and retail confusion and possibly killing chances altogether for the adoption of a new high-def disc format, especially as electronic and wireless delivery of movies is gaining popularity.

Game for integration

At stake is a financial cut and control of the disc on which consumers spend tens of billions of dollars each year to see movies and TV shows and play videogames. Sony is already planning to integrate Blu-ray into the PlayStation 3, while Microsoft is expected to announce this week that HD DVD will be a non-exclusive component of the upcoming Xbox 360. Both next-generation gaming consoles will be used for DVD playback and home media networking.

Last month the two sides began quiet negotiations on a potential compromise. They are scheduled to hold meetings in Tokyo starting Monday.

Just prior to Toshiba’s announcement Tuesday, the company issued a statement debunking reports from the Japanese media that an agreement was at hand. A short while later the company made its announcement about the two revisions to its proposed HD DVD format.

The HD DVD camp said Tuesday’s announcement was aimed at swaying Disney over to the HD DVD side. Disney has no stake in underlying technology patent fees and has said its support of Blu-ray was non-exclusive in hopes that a single standard could emerge. But Disney has been vocal in its preference for the increased capacity of Blu-ray for the purposes of including more content and more interactivity.

Just pre-confab spin?

Officials at Disney and Sony had no official comment Tuesday, but sources within the Blu-ray camp dismissed the Toshiba announcement as rhetoric and strategic positioning on the eve of a Media Tech Expo in Las Vegas and just ahead of the meetings in Japan next week. None of the new technologies announced by Toshiba has been seen or approved by any of the necessary parties.

“We’re pleased they’re finally acknowledging more capacity is very important, but what they’re talking about is theoretical and down-the-road,” said Andy Parsons, senior VP of advanced products at Blu-ray backer Pioneer. “This doesn’t help the chances for unification.”

A spokesman for Toshiba acknowledged that the timing of the announcement was geared to Media Tech and that the technologies announced Tuesday would have to be approved by the DVD Forum, which could mean these optional components of the HD DVD may not be ready in time for the planned fourth-quarter launch.

(Paul Sweeting of Video Business contributed to this report.)